Great things can happen when diverse people find ways to meaningfully come together, sharing their skills with one another to address a common goal. I would hope months from now when we collectively look back at how manufacturers sprung to action – not for profit, but for a greater good.
The story of the MasksOn group is a prime example. As a nonprofit organization created to address the dire shortage of medical personal protective equipment (PPE) during the COVID-19 pandemic, MasksOn found a way to tap into the expertise of Boston’s medical, academic and tech communities. MasksOn is repurposing full-face snorkel masks to design and manufacture durable, reusable and sanitizable protective gear for high-risk clinicians in direct contact with COVID-19 patients. The snorkel mask is attached to a medical-grade filter (types that are still widely available to hospitals) using a custom-engineered 3D-printed – and soon to be injection-molded – adapter that creates an airtight seal over the snorkel holes.
“What’s been especially valuable for PTC’s collaboration with MasksOn is our particular expertise in the tools and processes to develop products remotely and with hyper-fast iteration and agility,” says Jon Hirschtick, president, SaaS business, PTC. “That’s what we specialize in during normal times – and during this COVID crisis, these skills are even more important.”
Hirschtick tells IndustryWeek, the ability to accept and integrate feedback, and collaborate between engineers who understand the technology and those who might have a better understanding of the healthcare space and needs has proven pivotal. “For example, one common reaction from doctors so far is that while the snorkel mask is serving its primary role to shield the face, it also muffles sound and makes it difficult to communicate with patients,” he says. “The MasksOn team is experimenting with different microphones and speakers that would amplify the healthcare worker’s voice.”
From a technology perspective, SaaS technology, 3D printing and rapid injection molding have all been especially helpful, adds Hirschtick. “With Onshape SaaS CAD and PLM, multiple engineers can work simultaneously on the same CAD model online and see feedback and edits in real time,” he says. “With social distancing, this has been invaluable because right now even if your colleagues are in the same building, it’s not advisable to collaborate over each other’s shoulder. It’s also allowed PTC’s volunteers to instantly share models with the major snorkel mask manufacturers when design questions arise. 3D printing allows engineers to quickly prototype and iterate on models to help meet MasksOn’s goal of delivering 50,000 masks over the next 3-12 weeks. Rapid injection molding has enabled this project to move to injection molded parts much faster than ever before.”
Hirschtick further expresses his confidence that innovation will surface as one of the long-term outcomes, with hope that the COVID-19 crisis response will have the kind of lasting impact on the engineering and manufacturing community that wars and the U.S. space program did. “Engineering and manufacturing are being forced to innovate and learn to move faster,” he says. “Who could have ever imagined that a diving mask would ever be used for medical purposes? The unfortunate shortages of medical supplies and the supply chain problems have created unprecedented pressure on the product design and manufacturing world to deliver new solutions quickly.”
“I’m not surprised to see all these companies from different industries rise to the occasion. I’m confident we’ll see this kind of super-fast, super-creative hyper-agile product development processcontinue as a new normal for companies that want to be leaders after this pandemic. It’s not easy to completely shift the kind of work you’re doing, but one of the silver linings is that we’re seeing new leaders emerge with creative ideas to power the frontlines. And these new processes and new ways of working will be of great benefit to their normal businesses long into the future.”
Bottom line, this experience of rapidly pivoting to repurpose machinery and production lines will make manufacturers realize how quickly they can do things when there is no emergency, explains Hirschtick. “One of the most remarkable things about the MasksOn organization is that it began as an idea between two doctors and an engineer in mid-March,” he says. “Three weeks later, pooling some of the top minds from Boston’s medical, tech and academic sectors, MasksOn was delivering hundreds of durable protective masks to hospitals for testing. Three weeks! Engineers have never been afraid of tackling seemingly impossible tasks, and this crisis is putting us all to the ultimate test.”